Icicle Creek Hiking

Hiking in the woods in the Icicle Creek drainage.

I really enjoy hiking — but with some limitations. I can hike all day on relatively flat terrain. If the hike has a climb, I prefer that the climb be at the beginning of the hike with the descent at the end. I’m easily winded on uphill climbs — and have been like that all my life, even when I was young and super slim — but have absolutely no trouble going downhill. On hot days, I prefer hiking in areas with at least partial shade. On cold days, put me out in the sun.

Icicle Gorge Trail

A few weeks ago, Kirk and I did the Icicle Gorge loop trail. That’s up Icicle Creek, not far from Leavenworth. The trail winds through forest and clearing, mostly following Icicle Creek. The water was still running pretty good, the creek fed by meltoff from snowpack and small glaciers up in the east side of the Cascade Mountains. It thunders through several narrow channels along the streambed — the gorge of the trail’s name.

Icicle Gorge Trail
The trail wound along the side of the creek, fringed with tall pines and wildflowers.

This was my second time hiking the trail. It’s just the kind of trail I like for a summer hike, with gentle uphill and downhill climbs, mostly in the shade of tall pine and other trees with a handful of open grassy meadows along the way. I’d done it the year before with my friend Alyse.

We got on the loop heading downstream first, crossing a footbridge at a narrow part of the gorge. From there, we headed back upstream. At first, we were along Icicle Creek, but the trail moves away from the creek, into the forest. At one point, it winds up to the top of a small hill with a monument that overlooks a bend in the creek. Then it descends back down to the creek, crossing Trout Creek not far when it meets Icicle.

Trout Creek
The trail crosses Trout Creek at a small footbridge in the forest.

We stopped along the creek for a snack of nuts and fruit and energy bars. The rocks there were worn by centuries of water flow, with some carved pockets filled with stagnant water. The sound of the rushing creek was oddly calming.

Swimming Hole
Just downstream from this bridge was a deep swimming hole just perfect for a refreshing dip.

The trail crossed Icicle Creek again at the Chatter Creek campground. There’s an auto bridge there and beneath it, a cascade feeding a deep swimming hole. We climbed down onto the rocks bordering the deepest part. A few people were farther downstream, at a sandbar that helped hold the water back.

I threw Penny in to cool her and pulled her out when she swam ashore; after that, she wouldn’t stay with us. (I had to put her on a leash a while later, just to keep her near.)

Kirk changed into his swimming trucks and wasted no time diving in. I was a little tougher to convince. I hadn’t brought a bathing suit. But after a while, I decided that the water looked too good to pass up. I stripped off my shorts and went in in my panties, tank top, and sport bra. The water was delightful — deep, clean, and refreshing. Probably the best swimming hole I’d ever been to.

Indian Paintbrush
Indian Paintbrush is one of many wildflowers we spotted along the trail.

After our swim, we got back on the trail and continued the loop. We were on the return trip now. The trail wound mostly through dense woods, coming very close a few times to the gravel road that led to the campground. I’d brought along my Nikon with its 10-24mm lens and took some photos of flowers and tiny waterfalls along the way.

We were back in the parking area about three hours after we’d started the hike. We’d walked a leisurely 4 miles or so. A great hike I’d definitely do again — especially on a hot summer day. Next time, I’ll wear a swimsuit under my shorts.

Icicle Creek Trail

Tiny Creek
We crossed this tiny creek on our hike. The forest was dense and cool.

On Friday, Kirk and I went out to Icicle Creek again. This time, we hiked a trail he’d done before, the Icicle Creek Trail. The trailhead can be found at the very end of the same road we’d taken to get to the Icicle Gorge loop trail.

This is an out-and-back trail that winds through dense forest, gently climbing and descending as it goes. Its name is misleading — it doesn’t actually follow the creek. Instead, it cuts through the woods, crossing a handful of tiny creeks, with the sound of Icicle Creek off in the distance. Eventually, it joins Icicle at its confluence with French Creek.

The walk was pleasant, although I regretted my choice of attire — shorts and tank top — because an overcast made it chilly down in the woods. Not exactly cold, but not warm, either. The kind of day when sunlight would have been welcome. I let the GPS in my phone keep track of our trail, but tucked away in the pocket of my cargo shorts as we hiked in a canyon, it had trouble keeping track of where we were. As a result, the track was jagged with its length likely overstated. At the end of the hike, it said we’d gone nearly five miles, but I don’t think we went much more than four.

Fishing at Icicle Creek
One of the campers was fly fishing just downstream from the French/Icicle confluence.

We saw signs of horses — there’s a horse camp and a horse trailer parking area not far from the trailhead — but no horses. No wildlife either.

The sound of the creek got louder and louder until we reached it. There are two campsites there, one on either side of the creek, and a family had set up camp in one of them. A man and girl were fishing in the creek while a woman and another child were walking creekside not far away. French Creek met Icicle Creek right there, with water rushing together from both creeks in a jumble of rocks.

French/Icicle Confluence
The confluence of French (left) and Icicle (right) creeks.

We hung out for a short while, then continued on the trail. A “Stock Crossing” sign marked where horseback riders could cross French Creek. There was a good, strong bridge a bit farther down the trail. I found myself telling Kirk about my horses and how Cherokee couldn’t be made to cross that bridge but Jake would have no trouble at all. (I miss my horses, but not enough to have horses again, despite the fact that I have plenty of room to keep them at my home.)

Kirk on a Log
Kirk clowning around on a log across one of the tiny creeks.

We didn’t walk much farther. Not only was I getting cold as the overcast continued to thicken, but I was concerned about the possibility of rainfall over orchard I’m under contract to protect. There was no cell phone service where I was and no clear look at the sky back toward Wenatchee. On top of all that, I had a meeting near home at 5 PM. So after only an hour on the trail, we turned around and headed back.

Kirk dutifully picked up a few pieces of trash — a beer can and a Starbucks cup (if you can believe that) — along the way. I think I’ll be bringing bags for this job on future hikes. I can’t believe how people can be such pigs.

Back at the trailhead, we loaded the Jeep back up and retraced our route back toward Leavenworth. We had just enough time for lunch at Sleeping Lady before I had to hurry home.

Would I do the hike again? Definitely. But next time, I’ll bring a change of clothes and a better lunch. I’d very much like to see what’s farther up that trail.

Jumpoff Ridge and Clear Lake

A Jeep drive to an exploratory hike.

Kirk and I spent much of Wednesday morning clearing boxes of items out of my RV (AKA the “Mobile Mansion”) as part of a major cleanup. It was a big job made more manageable by a helper who kept me focused and moving. I suspect that if Kirk and I joined forces for any big job, we’d get it done in record time.

Afterwards, we went inside for a break and lunch. I whipped up some pizza dough and picked eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes from my garden. By 1 PM, we were each making our own pizza masterpieces, which we later ate out in the shade on the deck.

That took us to 2 PM. Half the day was still ahead of us.

We’d talked about taking out the boat for a short ride, but it was windy down on the Columbia so we put it off for another day. Then Kirk suggested taking the Jeep up onto Jumpoff Ridge, where a road wound along the edge of the cliff. I’m always game for a Jeep ride, so we pulled out the Jeep, loaded Penny and some bottled water on board, and took off.

On Jumpoff Ridge

Jumpoff Ridge is the name of the cliff face due south of my home. It rises more than 1,000 feet from the shelf where my home sits. The side facing me is layered basalt columns that are strikingly beautiful, especially with golden first or last light shining on them. Topo maps and satellite images show a road up there that meanders along the top of the cliff. One of the local property owners, in an attempt to avoid contributing to road association fees, claimed he’d use that road to access his land — yes, his 20 acres does include the cliff face and a sliver of land on top. I’d been wanting to check out the road for at least a year and was looking forward to the drive up there.

Jumpoff Ridge Topo
A topo map shows the steep cliff on the north side of Jumpoff Ridge. The road we planned to drive is indicated by the double dashed line atop the cliff. The blue track line to the right of the sharp turn is the road I live on, which was built after USGS topo maps were published.

I knew how to get to the road we sought. Follow Joe Miller Road to Stemilt Loop Road and turn left at the church. Then follow that to Jumpoff Ridge Road. From there, it turns to improved gravel. It’s a moderately steep climb through ponderosa pine with tantalizing glimpses of the orchard-filled land in the Stemilt Hill and Wenatchee Heights areas below. There are about a dozen lots, some of them with homes on them, at the top of the road. One of them belongs to one of my charter clients and I’ve landed and departed with the helicopter from his yard at least a dozen times over the past two or three years.

Top of Jumpoff
At the top of Jumpoff Ridge, the topo map showed a 4-way intersection. But there was no left turn to the radio facility.

That’s also where the road splits. A left hand turn at my client’s house would take us to the road we sought, but the only left hand turn we saw looked like my client’s driveway. We could see the antennas — marked “Radio Facility” on the topo map — beyond and knew that’s where we needed to be. But there didn’t seem to be a way to drive through. So we went straight, looking for another left hand turn.

We found it a while later, but it was gated and locked. We kept going, passing under the Bonneville power lines and a handful of other homes. (When people say I live “out there,” they should come visit these people. They’re way out there.) Realizing the road was not likely to take us where we wanted to go, we turned back and had a closer look at that gate. It was securely locked with signs warning against trespassing. The road was strictly for communications company and power company use.

I guess my freeloading neighbor had no idea what he was talking about when he claimed he’d use that road to access his property. (Or, more likely, he was just a lying sack of sh*t.)

We stopped to consult the map I’d preloaded onto my phone’s Gaia GPS app. I’d already told Kirk about Clear Lake, where I’d stopped in November with my friend Don. It had been frozen hard that pre-winter day, after an early hard freeze. Don had bowled rocks across its surface just to hear the weird echoing sound as they bounced and slid. I thought it was a good alternative destination. The map showed a road off the southwest-bound powerline road (which was not gated) that would “shortcut” to it. It even had a name: Rock Ridge Road. We headed off to find it.

The road climbed steeply up a rocky slope and joined up with the Bonneville Power lines. It veered off into the forest and rejoined the powerlines. Then there was our right hand turn, right where the map said it would be. But there was also an “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign. Really? Ugh.

Faced with the choice of going back or taking the longer way around, we kept moving forward. The road was a lot longer than I remembered. It joined and left the powerlines several times, mostly climbing. There were tall pines, surprisingly green grass, and large meadows. I could easily imagine elk grazing there.

My 1999 Jeep Wrangler drove like a champ. I’ve owned this vehicle since new and, quite frankly, I don’t take very good care of it. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I routinely beat the crap out of it. It had been flashing the Check Engine light on rough terrain on and off, coupled with a stuttering engine, for months.. Earlier in July I’d finally had it checked and fixed. Turned out to be a wiring harness damaged by rodents — a much cheaper fix than I’d been prepared for. This was a good practice run for our upcoming camping trip to Glacier National Park and I was glad to see it running so smoothly.

After miles of rough road, we finally found and made the right hand turn that would take us down off the ridge: Schaller Road, according to the map. It was rocky, rough, and full of switchbacks. That dumped us onto Upper Basin Loop Road. We caught a glimpse of a pickup truck turning onto a road up ahead — the first vehicle we’d seen in over an hour — and kept on straight until we reached the turn for Clear Lake.

At Clear Lake

Clear Lake
Clear Lake is a small reservoir in the woods.

Clear Lake is a very small reservoir in the Stemilt Basin. It likely collects and stores water for one of the dozens of Stemilt cherry, apple, or pear orchards in the Stemilt Hill area. The road ends at a locked gate close to the lake. We parked and got out for a walk. Penny was very happy to get out of the Jeep, where she’d been riding on Kirk’s lap since our departure from home. There was no one around and it was peaceful.

The topo map showed another larger lake to the west, on the other side of the ridge: Lily Lake. Although our time was somewhat limited — Kirk had a meeting later that evening in Cashmere and the drive had already taken longer than planned — we set off to see if we could catch a glimpse of the other lake. Like me, Kirk has kayaks and we’re always interested in finding new destinations for a leisurely paddle.

Lean To in the Woods
We stumbled upon this old lean-to in the woods up the hill from Clear Lake.

We followed a trail and then a road and then a trail o the west side of the lake and started the climb up the ridge. Near the top, we found an old lean-to made with branches and the remains of a campsite. But not much else.

Thimbleberries
Ripening thimbleberries. While not as tasty as raspberries or blackberries, they do make a nice treat.

We dropped down and followed the road back to the southeast. There was another locked gate and we walked around it. That took us southwest on a road that small trees were already starting to reclaim. Thimbleberry bushes lined the road and Kirk and I picked and ate the reddest ones. A small creek roared in a steep but narrow canyon beside us. After about a quarter mile, the road dead-ended at a dam with a valve: the control for the underground pipeline that was filling Clear Lake from the creek. There was no road or trail beyond to Lily Lake.

Dam
A concrete dam in the forest formed a small pond where a buried pipeline fed Clear Lake. Water over the spillway fed the creek we heard in the ravine beside the road.

After snapping a few photographs, we headed back to where the Jeep waited. We’d visit Lily Lake another day from a road on the other side of the ridge that I’d already spotted on the map. There were other lakes up that way and it would make a good day trip for us, giving me the Jeep outing I wanted with the hiking Kirk preferred. Win-win.

Heading Home

The trip home was uneventful. It was less than a mile back to pavement from Clear Lake. Then back to the church and Joe Miller Road and, eventually, my road.

Kirk snacked on some cold pizza as we loaded up his car. He headed out for his meeting. I heated the rest of the pizza in the oven and snacked on it while unwinding from the bumpy trip, glad to have found an excellent traveling companion for future adventures.

Curious about our route? Click here to see it and all the photos I took.

My Helicopter’s Annual Migration from California

I take a few days off and fly from California to Washington solo.

Last week, I flew my helicopter home from a frost contract in California. I took the opportunity to treat myself to two nights in a bed and breakfast I’d been wanting to stay in for some time. Then I made the solo trip home, taking a coastal route for part of the way. I thought I’d share some information about why I go to California every winter and the highlights of this particular trip.

My Annual Frost Migration

In 2013, I got my first contract as a frost control pilot in California’s north Central Valley. That year, my helicopter was still living in the winter in Arizona and, as I flew it westward with my dog, I realized with a bit of sadness that it would likely never be back in Arizona. When that contract ended, I flew it north to Washington for cherry season. I left my home in Arizona in May 2013 and bought the land for my new home in Washington before the ink on my divorce papers was dry in July 2013.

The helicopter spent that winter in a hangar in Wenatchee. In February, I flew it south again for my second season on frost. That contract required me to stay in the area, so I migrated down in the mobile mansion and stayed there for two months. I came back in April.

My helicopter moved to its new home on my property in Malaga in May 2014, at the start of cherry drying season. By October, it was tucked away inside my building, which I designed primarily to house it, the mobile mansion, and my collection of vehicles. When I got busy with construction on my place in December and needed to shift the RV into the helicopter’s parking space, I moved it back out and into a hangar at Wenatchee Airport. (Thanks, Tyson!) Then, in February, it was back to California for my third frost season. Like my first frost contract in 2013, I didn’t have to live there with it — I wanted to stay home to continue construction and enjoy the spring blooming season. But in late April, it was time to bring it home again.

A lot of folks ask me why I fly the helicopter to and from these agricultural contracts instead of putting it on a trailer. There are three reasons:

  • I don’t have a trailer that would accommodate the helicopter and I don’t want to buy one. A trailer that can support the helicopter and its blades/tailcone properly would cost about $30,000. I could fly a lot of hours for that amount of money. And I’d still have to cover the cost of the drive, although it wouldn’t be nearly as much.
  • I don’t know about you, but the thought of driving down the highway with a $350K investment towed behind me is pretty scary. All it takes is one asshole cutting me off to turn that shiny red machine into a heap of junk on the side of the road. Simply stated: I think flying is safer for it.
  • I like to fly. ‘Nuff said.

I factor in the cost of transporting the helicopter when I decide whether a contract is worth my while. I don’t take contracts that would put me in the red if I didn’t actually fly on contract. That would be dumb.

But with that said, I do often take either passengers for hire or pilots wanting to build time with me on those long repositioning flights. I’ve been doing this since 2008, when I started migrating between Arizona and Washington for cherry season. I cut various deals with various people, depending on what the market will bear. Sometimes passengers or pilots just pay for gas. Other times, they pay a rate that covers all my costs. Most of the time, I collect something in between. This helps make the contract a tiny bit more profitable, often while giving a new pilot a chance to build some flight time in an R44 and gain some valuable cross-country flight experience.

I know I flew solo from Arizona to California that first season (2013) and I’m pretty sure I flew solo from California back to Washington. But in 2014, I had pilots do the flying with me as a passenger on both flights. And on the way down in 2015, another pilot flew while I just sat in my seat, trying not to be bored.

I decided that for the return flight, I’d be be pilot and I’d treat myself to a flight up the coast.

After all, I really do like to fly.

Potential Passengers

I asked a bunch of people who I like if they’d like to join me on that return flight. I got a bunch of interesting responses.

Four people could not go because of work they simply couldn’t get out of. I’d planned my trip for mid-week, so that really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

One person, who is also a helicopter pilot, wanted to go but had to work. I think he would have gotten out of work if I’d let him share the flying duties with me. But I made it clear up front that I would be doing most of the flying. In fact, I didn’t even want the dual controls in because I didn’t want that counterweight. (I would have put them in for him.) Without the bonus of stick time, it wasn’t worth taking time off from work.

One person couldn’t come because his wife’s mom is seriously ill and they expect her to pass away soon. We agreed that it would be better if he didn’t come. (She hasn’t died yet, but she’s close.) And yes, I did tell him he could bring his wife.

One person couldn’t come because he didn’t want to spend $300 on a one-way plane ticket to Sacramento. He had that money earmarked for other things. “Next time,” he said. I’m not sure if he realizes that there probably won’t be a next time.

And there were the usual collection of pilots wanting to build time. When I told the ones who contacted me that I’d be doing the flying, they all passed on the opportunity to come along as a passenger.

So as Penny and I boarded the flight to Sacramento on Tuesday morning, we knew it would be just the two of us in the helicopter on the way home. I’d fly and drink up all the sights along the way. Penny would do what she always does on the helicopter: sleep.

Prepping for the Return Flight

My flight down to Sacramento didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. I was supposed to get into Sacramento at 11 AM, but the 6 AM flight out of Wenatchee was cancelled due to a bird strike on the starboard engine the night before. The morning pilot had seen some of the damage during his preflight walk-around and a mechanic confirmed that the bird — likely an owl — had been ingested into the turboprop engine. That plane wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Through some miracle, I managed to get on the next flight out later that morning. Then an afternoon connection to Sacramento. I stepped off the plane there at around 4 PM and was driving away in a rental car by 4:30.

My whole day in the area was shot to hell. I managed to do some errands before heading out to Rumsey where I was booked at a bed and breakfast for the night. I’ll blog about that in another post.

Wednesday’s forecast called for strong winds from the north. That would cause two problems:

  • Strong, gusty winds make turbulence. I really hate long, bouncy flights, especially when I’m trying to take a scenic route.
  • Strong winds from the north when I’m flying north meant longer flight times and more fuel stops. If I cruise at 110 knots and there’s a 40 knot headwind, that means I’m only doing 70 knots. Hell, I could drive faster than that.

Penny in the Helicopter
Penny lounges in the back seat of the helicopter while I prepped it for the flight home.

So I decided to spend another night in the area and leave early the next morning. In the meantime, I went to the airport, preflighted, wiped down the windows, and prepped it for flight. I’d be taking off as early as possible the next morning.

Locally, the wind was maddeningly calm all day.

The Flight Home

Penny and I were back at the airport at 6:10 AM on Thursday morning. Although the sun hadn’t peeked up over the horizon yet, as far as I was concerned, it was daytime.

I put Penny in the front seat beside me with a cooler full of drinks and snacks in the footwell there, within reach. The back was packed with some luggage and the equipment I’d left with the helicopter over the previous two months: blade tie-downs, cockpit cover, spare fuel pump, and miscellaneous equipment. My GoPro was mounted on the nose with the WiFi turned on. My iPad and iPhone were mounted within reach; I’d use Foreflight on my iPad to navigate and listen to podcasts and music on my iPhone.

The helicopter started right up and I gave it plenty of time to warm up. Then I took off to the west along Cache Creek and opened my flight plan by tapping a button in Foreflight.

Although I didn’t often file a flight plan when flying solo, I’d forgotten to bring along my SPOT Messenger and I wanted some way of being found in the event of a mishap. My flight plan had me heading west along Cache Creek all the way to Clear Lake, then hitting the California Coast at Fort Bragg. But because it was so early and the California Coast is notorious for morning fog and I’d already passed some low clouds near Willits, I took a more northerly route.

Cache Creek at Dawn
Flying up Cache Creek just after dawn.

Clear Lake
The lower end of Clear Lake.

Willits, CA
Low clouds over Willits, CA.

Along the way, I played around with Periscope. This is a Twitter-owned video broadcast service that makes it possible for anyone to broadcast anything to the world in real time. My iPad was mounted in such a way that its camera looked right through the front of the helicopter’s bubble, so the picture wasn’t bad at all. Unfortunately, the rotor sound made it impossible to hear any narration from me, so although I saw viewers’ questions, I couldn’t answer them.

Faced with a choice of following a valley north or striking out across the hills to the coast and following that, I finally headed for the coast. I came down a little green canyon between Westport and DeHaven and banked to the right to start my flight up the coast. (I was broadcasting during this time, so my Periscope followers got to watch it live.)

California Coast
My first sight of the Pacific Ocean from the Helicopter since my trip to Lopez Island last August.

Flying Up the Coast
I flew up the coast at my usual altitude of 500 to 700 feet AGL.

I was surprised, at first, how smooth the flying was. I had been expecting some wind and, with it, turbulence. But just when I started enjoying the smooth air, the turbulence hit. With a vengeance. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the coast, I was bouncing all over my area of the sky.

I headed inland. For another 20 minutes, the bouncing continued. I tried higher elevations to avoid the effect of the wind over the hills — mechanical turbulence. This is the kind of turbulence that most often affects my flights, mostly because I fly so low to the ground. But climbing didn’t help. The only way out of it was going to be to fly somewhere where there was less wind.

Of course, while all this was going on, I was burning fuel at a higher rate than expected. That meant I wasn’t going to make my first fuel stop as far north as Crescent City. I used Foreflight to find a closer alternative. I could make Eureka or Arcata, both of which were on the coast. I checked weather there using the Aeroweather app and saw the wind was much calmer. By that time, the bouncing had stopped anyway and flight was smooth again. So I hooked up with the South Fork of the Eel River at Myers Flat, followed that down to the Eel River, and followed that down to Fortuna.

At the coast, a marine layer had moved in but was burning off quickly. I flew just below the clouds, north from Fortuna to Eureka, where I landed for fuel at Murray (EKA) and closed my flight plan. Their pumps are ancient and attendant-run, which didn’t bother me in the least. When I do long cross-country flights, I don’t mind paying more for someone else to do the pumping. I let Penny out and we went into the FBO for a bathroom break. They had a surprisingly large pilot shop there with lots of goodies. But I wasn’t in the mood to shop so I didn’t linger.

I chatted with the attendant about the weather. I really wanted to fly up the coast but I really didn’t want to do scud-running along the way. He thought it would clear up. I figured I’d head north along the coast as long as I could see, then strike out to the west. I whipped up and filed another flight plan, then added a quart of oil and fired up the helicopter. Minutes later, Penny and I were airborne again, heading north on the east side of Arcata Bay.

We stayed on the coast for quite a while. I turned on my helicopter’s nosecam as we flew up the coast past the Redwood National Forest and various other places. The views were amazing. There were sandy stretches of beaches, sheer cliffs, and rocky islands. I saw sea lions and sea birds. But I think it was the sheer number of waterfalls tumbling off the cliffs into the Pacific Ocean that really stood out for me. It was just the kind of trip I’d hoped for. It was only after I thought I’d shot at least a half hour of spectacular video that I reached down to shut off nosecam — and realized that it hadn’t been turned on. Duh-oh! I did manage to get some good shots and video later on, but not until after a fine mist started moving in.

Waterfall
There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as a waterfall tumbling off rugged cliffs into the ocean.

The mist turned to rain around Gold Beach, OR and I decided to move inland in search of clearer weather. Unfortunately, there was no joy. I took an incoming call from a pilot friend based in California who’d just gotten some bad news about an engine overspeed on his R44. We chatted for a while as I flew between green hills and low clouds while a light rain pelted the cockpit bubble. Then the call dropped and I continued through the muck in silence.

Green Hills Near Umpqua
There was no way to keep the rain off the nosecam’s lens cover. This was the view as we headed northeast near Umpqua, OR.

I hooked up with I-5 near Yoncalla, OR. From that point, it was a bit of IFR — I follow roads — flying. It wasn’t that I had to follow the road — I could see fine. It’s just that there was no reason to fly further east because mountain obscuration made it impossible to cross the mountains anyway.

I stopped for fuel at Creswell. I’d stopped there before. I pumped my own fuel, used the restroom, and checked the oil. It was still raining lightly. One of the interesting things there is a vending machine that sells aviation oil. I didn’t need to use it — I learned long ago to always carry at least two spare quarts and actually had six on board for this flight — and I wish I’d taken a photo of it.

We were there less than 15 minutes. I continued north along I-5, now in Oregon’s “central valley.” I broadcast another Periscope video just past Eugene, then peeled away abeam Harrisburg to the northeast. Although I couldn’t see the mountains at all, I still had high hopes of crossing the Cascades at the foot of Mount Hood’s north side. After all, how big could this weather system be?

Apparently, it could be pretty big. I got within 40 miles of Mount Hood and still couldn’t see it. If anything, the clouds were lower and thicker. I heard some helicopter pilots chatting on one of the frequencies about low ceilings. One was doing training and the other was doing powerline survey work. They shared information about holes in the weather but since I didn’t know any of the places they talked about, none of it helped me.

Near Mt. Hood
My track took me pretty close to Mount Hood. I never saw it. My track is the teal dots in this map capture; the red dots represent geotagged photos.

So the scud running began. I wasn’t in the mood for it at all, so I didn’t put much effort into it. Instead of following valleys to the northeast that might have got me closer to my destination, I just headed north, hopping over hills and ducking under clouds along the way. I knew that eventually I’d reach the Columbia River, my old standby for crossing the Cascades. And sure enough, just when I thought the ceilings couldn’t get any lower, I found myself at the edge of a drop down to the water. There were clouds below me, but a big enough hole to dive right through. I descended at about 1500 feet per minute and leveled out about 400 feet over the river’s surface.

Columbia River
Leveled off over the Columbia River not far from Multnomah Falls.

My reward: an amazing view of Multnomah Falls, off to my right. (Sorry — no photos. My nosecam faces forward, not sideways.)

I followed the river northeast, flying in a sort of tunnel created by the walls of the gorge and the low clouds. I overflew the Bonneville Dam and Cascade Locks and the town of Hood River, which I really liked before it got so upscale. At Lyle, one of my least favorite places on earth, I turned to a more northward direction. That eventually put me over the Yakima Indian Reservation. I don’t know if it’s pretty. By this time — more than 7 hours of travel, including stops — I was tired and just wanted to be home. But the sky gods were going to make me work for it. They threw just enough headwind and turbulence in my way to make me ready for another fuel stop at Yakima.

The FBO’s fuel guy did all the work. I got something to drink and relaxed a while in a comfy chair while Penny looked around for dropped popcorn. We’ve spent entirely too much time at McCormick at Yakima.

Fueled up and feeling refreshed, we headed out again, continuing north. Although I could have gone direct to my home from Yakima, I had a small task to do along the way — I needed to check out a possible landing zone for an anniversary flight in June. The location was off I-90 across the river from Vantage.

That done, and feeling great to be back in very familiar territory, I dropped down and raced up the Columbia River, only 100 or 200 feet from the surface. Wanapum Reservoir was full again — it had been drained for dam repairs all last year — and it was great to do one of my favorite flights. I passed Sunland, where the folks who sold me my property live in the summer months, Cave B and the Gorge Amphitheater, and Crescent Bar. I saw a huge herd of elk down on West Bar before beginning my climb to clear the wires that crossed the river between the mouth of Lower Moses Coulee and Rock Island.

Then I was climbing up toward my home and my old landing zone was in sight. I set the helicopter down on the grass and let Penny out while I cooled down the engine and shut everything down.

Old Landing Zone
I shot this from my deck while having a very late lunch.

It was almost 3 PM.

I left the helicopter outside while I went in to make myself a good meal and relax. The wind kicked up and, for a while, I thought it would have to spend the night outside. But the wind died down after 6 and I got my ATV hooked up to the platform and repositioned it on my driveway’s landing zone. Then I started up the helicopter and moved it onto the platform. When the blades stopped spinning, I locked them in place and used the ATV to pull everything into the garage beside my RV.

RVs
Recreational vehicles? Must be. It’s an RV garage, after all.

Track Log
Here’s my track log for the entire flight. I was about 20-30 minutes into the flight when I remembered to turn it on, so it doesn’t accurately show my starting point.

According to my GPS tracklog, I’d traveled about 750 miles in 6-1/2 hours of moving time. It had been a great flight with lots of different flying conditions and things to see to keep it interesting. I’d enjoyed it, despite the moments of turbulence. It’s a shame that I had to do the flight alone. I’m sure every single person I invited would have loved it.

Next time? Maybe — if there is a next time.

A Springtime Hike in the Hills

Five miles is a heck of a way to start hiking season.

One of the benefits of being self-employed with an extremely flexible schedule is the ability to enjoy outdoor activities any day of the week. I abhor crowds so I try to do my hikes and bike rides and other activities when most folks are at work or school: in other words, mid-week.

My friend Susan is the same way. A retired attorney from the Seattle side of the mountains, she also likes to hike mid-week. So when a mutual friend introduced us last autumn, we seemed like a perfect match for hiking.

She got in touch last week when I was in California. I was crazy busy that week and expecting contractors to work on my home Friday and Monday, so we settled on Wednesday for a midday hike. The weather had been unseasonably warm, getting up into the high 60s every day, and the high desert landscape in the Wenatchee area was green and already studded with spring flowers. It would be an early start to the hiking season and, after spending too much time working on my home and traveling over the past few months, I really liked the idea of a day off.

I made a Home Depot/Lowe’s run in the morning with the thought of dropping off my purchases and meeting Sue at her home at 12:30 PM as planned. I didn’t expect to take nearly two hours in Home Depot and then wait 30 minutes in Lowe’s for them to bring my special order out. (Seriously: what is it with Lowe’s? This is the second consecutive time I’ve had to wait an unreasonable amount of time for them to bring an order out.) So when I got to Sue’s at 12:30, my Jeep was too full of lumber for Sue to fit. That meant running home to drop off my purchases. We didn’t get on the road to the trail until nearly 1:30.

Fortunately, the trailhead was close. To stay out of the wind, Sue had suggested Dry Gulch, which goes up a canyon. I wasn’t familiar with the trail names — I normally just hiked wherever there was a trail that looked good — and didn’t realize that I had hiked there once before with another friend back in the summer of 2012. It would be a bit of a climb and, since I suspected I was coming down with a cold, I wasn’t sure I was up to it. I warned Sue that I might not last very long and she said she understood. First hike of the season wasn’t expected to be long anyway.

Saddle Rock
Saddle Rock, from the southern trailhead near the end of Miller Street.

The trail had a surprising number of people on it, including kids. That’s when I realized it was spring break week. Most people prefer the hike up to Saddle Rock, which shares a parking lot. It’s a steep, exposed trail, not suitable for our first hike of the season on a windy day. It has amazing, sweeping views of downtown Wenatchee and beyond, which is one of the reasons it’s so popular. Dry Gulch was good enough for me. I don’t need to hike up a mountain to get views.

The trail climbs up an old road grade into a canyon crossed by one earthen dam after another. Up canyon from each damn is a dry (right now) pond. After climbing pretty steadily for about a mile, the trail crosses a larger dam. This is the point at which my friend and I had turned around back in 2012, going down a different trail. But Sue and I continued up the north side of Dry Gulch on a very easy, nearly flat trail that wound along the edge of the dry reservoir. (We basically took the green “A” trail on this map.)

Dry Gulch
You can see down into Wenatchee from various points on the Dry Gulch trail.

Penny on the Trail
There are various rock formations on either side of the trail. This one was particularly beautiful, surrounded by blooming trees with green grass and balsamroot flowers at its foot. Can you see Penny?

As we hiked, we chatted about all kinds of things. Sue is really into geology and fossils and gave me a little lesson on the area’s rocks. She also pointed out a place where she’d found some good leaf fossils in the past. We took our time climbing the first mile of easy trail, making several rest stops along the way.

Penny spent about half the time leashed; once we got beyond where the other hikers were, I let her loose to run around a bit. There were marmots in the area making a bird-like chirping noise. Every once in a while, we’d catch sight of one running on the slopes. Penny obviously smelled them and even caught sight of a few of them on our return hike. I think her experiences with our barn cats, which are about the same size, taught her to keep her distance.

Lupine
I was quite surprised to see lupine blooming up the trail; it’s just starting to come up at my home. Can you see the bumblebee?

After the dam, we turned left on the trail to continue up the gulch. This was, by far, my favorite part of the hike. The trail followed the edge of the reservoir but was much higher, looking down at it. After passing through a locked gate — we had to slide sideways between the rails — the trail narrowed and wound among balsamroot and lupines. We passed various signs of old mining activity, including low concrete walls at the mouths of side canyons. It was quiet — not another soul was on this part of the trail. We saw evidence of deer and elk — hoofprints and droppings. Cows and horses, too.The canyon narrowed considerably and the trail nearly dead-ended at an old dam. Its gate was gone and a trickle of water from upstream meandered through. It was cool and shady. A nice place for a picnic.

End of TrailThe trail continued as a narrow ribbon up into the canyon past the point where we turned back.

By this time, I’d had enough of the hike. I was surprised I’d come as far as I did — even though I didn’t know at the time how far we’d walked. About a quarter mile into the hike back, I remembered to turn on my GPS tracker. When I turned it off back at the Jeep an hour later, it reported a total of 2.2 miles. That brings the total length of the hike up to about five miles. Whoa. Not bad for a first hike of the season.

It had been a great hike — just the right length for me on that day. It’s unfortunate that my favorite part of the trail required a mile-long uphill hike to reach. I’d like to find more trails like that with trailheads easier to get to. I can hike all day on level ground or even downhill, but uphill has always been a bit of a struggle for me.

After dropping off Sue, I drove home and took a nice, long soak in my tub. An hour later, I was dead asleep in a two-hour nap. Let’s see if that rest is enough to fight off this cold.

On Spur-of-the-Moment Travel

It’s amazing where you can be in just a few hours.

I’m on my third consecutive year as a frost control pilot. I haven’t written much about this, mostly because I haven’t actually had to fly a mission. But for the third year in a row I’m being paid to have my helicopter ready, with relatively short notice, to fly slowly over almond trees on cold California mornings.

The Back Story

My first year’s contract, back in the winter/spring of 2013, had a relatively low standby pay for 60 days, along with compensation to move the helicopter from its base — in Arizona, in those days — to California’s Central Valley. Because I wasn’t sure about my living situation that winter — after all, my future ex-husband could get his head out of his ass and accept the very generous settlement offer I made and I’d have to move — I moved my truck and RV to California as well, thus guaranteeing a cheap and comfortable place to live near my work. (After all, that’s why I bought the RV; as a place to live when I was on the road with the helicopter.) I spent about two months traveling with Penny the Tiny Dog between Phoenix, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, getting called out just once for two days. I happened to be in Vegas at the time, so it wasn’t a big deal to change my plane ticket and spend a few days in California instead of returning to Arizona.

Last year I took a very different contract. It paid a generous standby rate for six weeks but I had to live near the fields. This turned out to be very convenient for me since I was out of my Arizona home for good and didn’t have a home in Washington yet. I brought the RV and helicopter down in mid-February and stayed until the middle of April. I really got to know the area, made new friends, went hiking and kayaking several times, got comped on a balloon ride, and even learned to fly a gyroplane. It was like being on a paid vacation in a pleasant place, with warm days and lots to do and see. If I did have to work, it would likely be between 3 AM and 7 AM, so days were free to do as I pleased.

Although the money was great, the drawback to that contract was the simple fact that I couldn’t get back to Washington until April. I wanted to be back earlier. I wanted to experience the spring: seeing orchards in bloom and leafing out, hiking along streams full of snow-melt runoff, starting a garden. So when December 2014 rolled along, I decided to try to get a frost control contract like the first year.

And I did.

I brought the helicopter down to California on February 22. The RV would stay home — with me — as I finished work on my home and enjoyed the spring.

That’s the back story.

Call Out

Frost control is not like cherry drying. In cherry drying, I’m required to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice. I can monitor the weather closely and vary my daily routine based on the likelihood of rain. When my clients call, they expect me to be airborne in minutes.

In my frost contract, the client monitors the weather closely and, if there’s a possibility of frost, he initiates a callout. My contract requires him to do this by at least 12 hours before he expects me to fly. This gives me the time I need to get to California from Washington. I’m paid for the callout — the fee covers my transportation with a bit to spare. And then I’m paid a generous hourly pilot standby fee from the moment I get to my California base until I’m released the next morning. If I fly, I’m paid a flying rate for that. The next time I’m called out, the process starts all over again

When I brought the helicopter down to California this year, I built in a few extra days to spend some time with friends in the area. When those plans fell through, I kept myself busy by reacquainting myself with the area and visiting other friends. But I couldn’t have timed it better. I was put on standby two of the three nights I was already down here. I was able to earn the callout and standby fees without incurring the related travel expenses. Although it did require a minor flight change for my return home with a $25 fee, that’s still pretty sweet. Really made it worth the trip.

I went home last Wednesday and got back to work on my home. The cabinets were installed on Thursday and Friday and the appliances were delivered on Saturday. Timing was everything and I lucked out.

My client called on Friday to make sure he understood how much lead time I needed to get back to California. Cold temperatures were forecast for Sunday through Wednesday nights. He wasn’t calling me out — yet. But he wanted to make sure he knew how much time would be needed to get me in position. I told him that if he called me by 3 PM, I’d be able to make it to the helicopter by 10 PM and be on standby overnight.

Of course, I watched the temperatures, too. Unfortunately, the forecasts of my various weather sources aren’t nearly as accurate as those available to almond growers, by subscription, from an agricultural weather resource. I had to rely on them to call me and didn’t want to fly down unless I had to.

So each day the forecasted low was 40°F or lower, I’d be a nervous wreck, wondering whether I’d get a call. Once 4 PM rolled along, I’d relax. I did this on Sunday and Monday and got a lot of work done at my place. But I did pack an overnight bag on Monday afternoon, just in case.

On Very Short Notice…

On Tuesday, at 3:22 PM, my phone rang. It was my client. He’d been sitting on the fence about calling me down. Forecasted lows were 32° to 39° in the area. He told me that he knew from experience that if the forecast said 32°, it could go lower. Better safe than sorry. He was calling me out.

Fortunately, I was sitting at my desk answering an email message when he called. When I hung up, I got on the Alaska Air website. There was a flight out of Wenatchee at 5:20 PM — less than two hours from then — and I needed to be on it. I booked the flight from Wenatchee to Seattle to Sacramento. I’d arrive at 9:28 PM.

While I was at the computer, I searched for car rentals in Sacramento. Thrifty had one for $22/day. Rather than book online, I called directly. With my bluetooth earpiece in my ear, I made car reservations as I changed my clothes and put a few more things into that suitcase.

I decided to board Penny. She’d been with me on the last trip and I thought I’d keep things a lot simpler by leaving her behind this time. So I packed an overnight bag for her with enough food for 2 days — just in case I needed to stay over an extra night. Club Pet is on my way to the airport, so dropping her off only took 5 minutes, especially since the paperwork was already waiting for me. As I type this, she’s likely playing out in the yard with the other dogs.

I checked into my flight and chose my seats using the Alaska Air app on my phone while stopped at a traffic light. I only had one bag — a carry-on — so I didn’t need to stop at the counter.

Seattle Sunset
I got off the plane in Seattle just after sunset.

I was at the airport, through security, and sitting in the waiting area by 4:45. That’s less than 90 minutes after getting the call. At 6:07 PM, I stepped off the plane from Wenatchee onto the tarmac at SeaTac. This is one of the best things about living in a small town with airline service: it’s so damn quick and easy to catch a flight out of town when you need to.

I grabbed dinner at SeaTac’s Terminal C before catching my flight to Sacramento.

It was an amazing flight. The moon had risen and was almost full. The land beneath us was illuminated with moonlight. I sat at the window on the A side of the plane and watched as we passed Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. Our flight path took us down the Cascade range in Oregon, over the Three Sisters and other mountains there. I could clearly identify the towns I knew on Route 97 from the location of their airport beacons in relation to the town’s lights. The moon’s bright orb reflected back up at me from streams, marshes, and lakes. The flight couldn’t have been any smoother, either.

We touched down in Sacramento fifteen minutes early. I was out of the terminal waiting for the rental car shuttle bus by 9:30 PM. Later, I’d settle down in a Best Western for the night. I slept like a log until 5 AM.

Although a call to fly never came, I don’t mind making the trip. I will be well compensated for my time and the inconvenience of dropping everything to spend a few days in California. My client is satisfied, glad he can count on me to come when called. It’s all good.

I’ll kill some time here today and catch a flight home either tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m flexible and it’s a beautiful day.